Pilgrim legends: a Path to the stars

Few visions move us as much and infuse us with as much inner peace as that of a firmament strewn with stars on a placid summer night. Normally we have a very global mental image of what we see: the different shades of the night sky, the distance between each twinkling sparkle… but if we look carefully we will also see a whitish strip of nebulous appearance: it is the Milky Way.

Unfortunately, for those who live in cities it is rarely possible to enjoy this beautiful panorama. Pollution and artificial lights prevent us from contemplating the bright stars. To see them in their fullness we must go to a mountain or the sea on a clear night. With the help of binoculars we can see the Milky Way in all its splendor. Today we know that it is located in the central plane of our galaxy and that it is made up of more than two hundred billion stars, space dust and gas clouds that come together to form an immense spiral that revolves around the Sun.
Our ancestors lacked scientific methods to know the planetary system, however, since ancient times men contemplated the stars looking for their origins and destiny. Astrology and astronomy were the object of study for civilizations as ancient as Egypt and Babylon.

The Greeks became aware of the existence of the Milky Way. For the philosopher Democritus it was a “set of innumerable stars”. For Aristotle it was formed by a hot and dry substance, similar to the gas of the marshes.

Some time later Galileo was able to distinguish up to 1610 stars with his telecoscope.

Some tribes such as the Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana had very curious explanations about the Milky Way. They called it “the backbone of the night” because they thought that the sky was a gigantic animal inside which we lived. The Milky Way held the night and if it were not for it, darkness would fall upon us.

In ancient China it was a river through which the souls of the dead wandered, while for the Egyptians it was the celestial continuation of the Nile that also irrigated the lands of the gods.

However, the name “Milky Way” or “way of milk” comes from a Greek myth according to which Zeus, the most powerful of the gods, had a son with the mortal Alcmene. This child, who was named Heracles or Hercules according to Roman tradition, was placed next to the breasts of his wife Hera while she slept so that by suckling on her milk he would achieve immortality. Little Hercules suckled so eagerly that he achieved extraordinary strength. But when Hera woke up and realized the trick, she angrily pushed the child away from her breasts, spilling some of the milk into the sky. For this reason this set of stars was called “Milky Way”.

This same trail of stars, according to tradition, helped to find the tomb of the Apostle Santiago in the 12th century. The Codex Calixtinus tells that the Apostle appeared to Charlemagne pointing to the Milky Way as a guide to reach Compostela:

“(…) And immediately he saw in the sky a path of stars that began in the sea of Frisia and, extending between Germany and Italy, between Gaul and Aquitaine, passed directly through Gascony, Vasconia, Navarre and Spain to Galicia, where then was hidden, unknown, the body of St. James”.

(Book IV, 742-814).

Whether or not we believe in the veracity of these apparitions, it is certain that the observation of the stars was very important in Antiquity and in the Middle Ages before embarking on a journey. The position of the stars helped to orient oneself and was a sign of certain omens (the word “disaster” means “without the help of the stars”).

The Camino de Santiago shares this aspect in common with some of the oldest pilgrimages in the world. In many points of the Jacobean route this tradition is known, to which a religious feeling is added. For example, in Cedeira the Milky Way is known as “Camiño de San Andrés” and there is a sanctuary where it is said that the souls of the deceased who could not make it in life go on pilgrimage.

In Acts of the Apostles 1:8 Jesus Christ commissions his disciples to carry the Gospel “throughout all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”. The Apostle James was an example of this tenacity. He dedicated his last years to preach the word of God in the north of the Peninsula but was beheaded by Herod of Agrippa in 44 A.D. His followers intended to take his remains to that “end of the known earth” which we know that in Roman times was Finisterre (Finis Terrae or “the end of the earth”). That is why the Primitive Way extended beyond Compostela, to the Costa da Morte, the place where the sun died, merging with the ocean.
The Jacobean route has a religious and mystical origin. It follows the path of the sun through the Milky Way and is marked by the stars. According to Book III of the Liber Sancti Jacobi, the pilgrimage ends when it reaches the ocean. When the pilgrims reached the coast, they collected seashells as a souvenir of their journey.

Ancient men observed the stars and related what they considered to be signs from the sky to their beliefs and faith. Today, most of these findings are considered superstitions; however, the analysis of the firmament does not fail to yield curious data on the subject. According to astronomers, around ten o’clock at night in the first weeks of December, the constellation Swan (also called “Northern Cross” because it is in the northern hemisphere and resembles a Christian cross), is located in the middle of the Milky Way: a line that starts from the center of the Earth and passes through Galicia between January 20 and February 20. Would these be the stars that Charlemagne followed?

We leave you to finish with a poem by the Spanish writer and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno that reflects this idea about the Way of St. James:

Road to Santiago
Enchanted with stars.
where do you take the soul
that goes in your footsteps?
You go around the firmament and
then back to the return;
you are a little road, a wheel.
Where does your ground end?
Where does the abode begin?
Where do the heavens end?
Where does what passes remain?
Road to Santiago
Enchained with stars,
the pilgrims are dying
of hunger for the last supper.

Shopping Cart
Scroll to Top